Facebook Fast Insights (So Far)

I am fasting from Facebook for the third year in a row this Lenten season. Each time I have similar experiences. Like any fast, the first few days are the hardest when I am most keenly aware of how habitual my Facebook use has become. Though I removed the app from my phone, I still found myself reflexively reaching for it as I stood in line at the grocery store or when I felt bored watching the kids.

I also gain new insights every time I do this. As my Covenant family puts it: the same act in a different context is a different act. Here is what I’ve seen from this year’s fast.

Distraction Abounds

The point of a Facebook fast is to pay attention to what God might be saying to me through my physical context—both the space I inhabit and the people around me. This is an uphill battle. Never underestimate my ability to find new ways to distract myself and waste time. As Lent progresses I need to delete more apps that become Facebook replacements. So long, Instagram. Sayonara, Trivia Crack. I even read the news as a means of diversion and I have to limit how many times I hit refresh on my Google News page. Lessening distraction is a necessary first step to becoming more present, but being present is a discipline that requires greater work than simply cutting out those things that take away my focus.

Enjoying a Break from the Heat

Forty days is enough time for seismic activity. In previous Facebook fasts, I missed out on the social media conversation around world-changing events like Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and Pope Francis’s election. So far this time I haven’t participated in the discussions concerning the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by Antonin Scalia’s death and a slew of presidential primary elections. Some years I have longed for the push and pull with others in response to major events. This year I find myself grateful to be away. Discourse on social media tends to produce more heat than light and I am glad to take a break from reading and participating in the acrimony. My blood pressure may have dropped. I’m not fighting with people in my head as much.

You Are Not Entitled to Listen to My Opinion

I remain as opinionated as ever about during the fast, especially about politics. Just ask my wife. But by intentionally refraining from reacting to the news—particularly the appalling news of a narcissistic demagogue sweeping through the Republican primaries—I see how unnecessary my opinion often is. I believe every person is entitled to her own opinion and I wouldn’t want to take away anyone’s voice, but I gain something by keeping my mouth shut on social media. My views have time to simmer. I’m not tempted to respond just because everyone else is. I have plenty of friends who offer reasoned arguments and I feel the absence of their voices. But so much of the stuff on my Facebook feed is noise. I know I contribute my share of it. Really, I like the sound of my own voice. Being entitled to my own opinion doesn’t mean everyone else needs to read my opinion.

Sisyphus’s Status: Another Morning, Another Time up the Hill.  #ThisStoneAintGoingToRollItself

Being an at-home parent of young kids can be a Sisyphean effort. Preparing meals and changing diapers and driving to and from school and wiping away spit up and washing laundry and reading books and building train tracks and cleaning the floor. Repeat it all again the next day and the next day and the next. As I lay in bed many nights, I see that I did a lot of stuff throughout the day, but I don’t necessarily think I accomplished or produced anything. Seeking a sense of accomplishment in parenting little kids is like chasing the wind. They are their own people with their own wills. We cannot take too much credit for their development or delays. During the fast I see how Facebook has become for me a means of getting an accomplishment fix. A status update that garners a number of likes makes me feel like I am seen, like I made something worthwhile that others appreciate. This is especially true on days in which my kids want to hear nothing from me or refuse the very same food they declared their favorite just the week prior. How meaningless. Status updates might be the most fleeting bits of writing—Facebook cares so little about them they don’t have a decent search function to find one from the past. I want to listen to God about this. Am I determining my worth and identity by what I produce? Or is there an invitation here? In being made in the image of the great creator God, I believe we are made to create. Is God inviting me to live into who I am by making sure I create on a regular basis? Also, how might I find more meaning in parenting?

Fasting is hard inner work, but thankfully we have a gracious and gentle God.

Say More About That

I want to make it my habit to use one phrase as my response to other people: say more about that. This statement is a countercultural act. Social media encourages quick responses to events. The statements that garner the most attention are usually the most opinionated—all the more if they come in the form of a sarcastic meme or gif—no matter if those opinions accurately reflect reality. I want to stop, listen, and learn, rather than simply offer my opinion. I want to hear the other person in a conversation instead of merely waiting for my turn to talk.

By temperament and training I make quick evaluations of arguments. As I read or listen to a person’s point of view I am constantly keeping a running tab of where I think they are right, and, more usually, where I think they are wrong. I have written before how my systematic theology professor in seminary, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, challenged me by his example to seek areas of agreement with others’ views before pointing out disagreements or offering corrections. I see I need to take a step further, or a step back, if you will. Before I look for areas of agreement, I need to make sure I understand the other person. To do that, I need to truly hear them.

When I read a statement from someone, I am quick to assign beliefs and values to them that have nothing to do with the argument they set forth. I think I understand their worldview entirely. If I disagree with an author on a political point, I will assume they espouse all sorts of unseemly social values. I hurriedly dismiss instead of seeking understanding. This is particularly dangerous in our pithy and distracted discourse. The truth is no one can be reduced to 140 characters. Slowing down and seeking deeper understanding of the other by asking them to, “Say more about that,” will hopefully help me see the nuance in the other’s argument. It will help me know more accurately whether I do agree or disagree with the person’s claim. And I will be better able to craft a thoughtful assessment of their position. Hopefully, such a discipline will help me see more dimensions in the person as well.

Last year Alissa Wilkinson wrote a thoughtful essay, “In Praise of Slow Opinions,” in which she laid out the reasons for not giving in to the pressure to form an immediate response and instead, to ruminate on a thought before giving your view. Wilkinson writes, “The good thing about forming opinions slowly, and then bouncing them off people who routinely disagree with you and aren’t afraid to say so—which describes most of my closest friends—is that when you are finally ready to write or say something, you can be more certain of it, because you’ve got a leg to stand on.”

I see a danger in this program. I might give in to the temptation to hide behind wanting more analysis when speaking against or for a controversial topic is needed. Asking someone to “Say more about that” should not be a means of avoiding taking a stand for justice. Rather, listening better should make me better able to clearly state why an unjust act or position is wrong. Sometimes situations demand swift action before a slow, reasoned discourse can happen. Just as knee-jerk responses are encouraged by our current instant discourse, my suggested discourse might have the opposite problematic effect of delaying when immediate response is needed. Discipline is needed to know when to speak and when to listen.

Using, “Say more about that,” may not drive up my shares or likes, but hopefully it will help me to understand people better and to appreciate their humanity more, even if I disagree with them.

Lessons from My Facebook Fast

For Lent I gave up Facebook. As the season drew to an end, I began reflecting on my experience. Here are some observations and insights.

  • I noticed the world around me more. Prior to the fast, it was not uncommon for me to check Facebook whenever I stood in line. Smart phones can be a blessing to introverted folks like me, allowing a bubble of personal space that others tend to respect. They can also be a curse, feeding those isolationist tendencies that prevent me from engaging others. During Lent I actually looked around at my neighbors in the grocery store and had a few conversations.
  • I missed hearing about the goings-on in my friends’ lives. At the same time, I learned that I have mistaken the broadcasting of information that happens in status updates for the actual interactions that friendships demand. Something in my mind had convinced me that because I knew where a friend in another town was eating dinner that I was involved in his or her life. During the fast I took the opportunity to have long telephone conversations with friends whose voices I missed and they were extremely rewarding interactions, full of the good stuff that never makes it into a status update. I realized that when I was on Facebook, I did not feel the same need to connect with them because I had settled for trading blurbs instead of seeking real engagement.
  • The fast confirmed some things I already knew about myself. For example, I am a terrible long-distance friend, as many others can attest. I therefore appreciate Facebook as it can help me stay somewhat in the loop and and keep others to a small degree in my loop, even if we don’t live in the same town. I also saw how dependent I am on Facebook for certain types of information, such as the dates of friends’ birthdays. I realized weeks later that I had missed some birthdays of people who are very important to me. (Perhaps this only further confirms my lack of long-distance friendship skills.)
  • Significant news stories happened during the fast—e.g., the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis—and I wished I could read the responses on Facebook of people whose opinions I value greatly. I suppose I could have just e-mailed or called them and asked directly.
  • I have a few friends on Facebook whom I use as my filters for news and commentary and I read just about everything they recommend. I can safely assume that they will link to something thought-provoking, well-written, and reasonably argued. These friends either read in disciplines outside my comfort zone or are connected to networks I am not and I appreciate them pointing me to writing worth considering. I find even those pieces with which I disagree worthwhile as they force me to think about my positions more thoroughly. I missed reading those recommended articles and engaging in those discussions and I look forward to their return in my life.
  • Related to the previous point, I did not miss the noise of so many Facebook posts. Numerous political, religious, and philosophical posts do little but disseminate bad information, vitriol, or sardonicism. The past six weeks were more peaceful since my blood didn’t boil reading nearly libelous and clearly spiteful memes that thought of themselves far more clever than they actually were. I also saw the ugly side of myself that relishes in either arguing against those memes—if I disagree with them—or laughing at the targets being mocked in the memes that are closer to my positions. I saw that I got a fix from arguments and much of my time and mental energy outside of Facebook was spent forming my next retort. Worse, I saw how I drew self-worth from the amount of likes I received for my comments and status updates—comments that I thought were far more clever than they actually were.
  • Facebook sucks creativity from me. The novelist Jonathan Franzen once wrote, “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” I begrudgingly admit the truth of Franzen’s point and would extend its scope beyond just fiction to all types of writing. If the internet as a whole decreases the quality of writing, Facebook is for me a unique adversary. In the season of fasting I was able to finish editing and publish my first eBook as well as start my second, efforts that would have taken much longer had I run to Facebook every time I hit a block in order to distract myself with pictures of food, silly memes, and engaging in debates that added more heat than light to the topic. If I want to be creative, I have to cap my time on Facebook. Raising a kid already limits the time I have to write. Facebook became for me a shortcut to writing some thoughts, but so much was lost in the truncation. What used to be a blog post I now reduced to a couple of sentences on a status update. And let’s face it, blog posts have never been the best means of exploring a topic with any real appreciation of nuance and subtlety. Compared to the brevity of a status update or a tweet, however, a blog post is a virtual chapter of a dissertation. (Granted, we must ask the larger question if people even read blogs anymore, but let’s table that discussion for another time.)
  • Not only do I allow Facebook to drain my creativity, I also allow it to negatively affect my prayer life. The time not spent on Facebook offered me more opportunities to pray for friends, family, and neighbors, some of whom endured serious trials during the weeks of Lent.
  • In terms of working toward solidarity with those who suffer, the Facebook fast did not immediately and obviously foster that goal. Fasting from food or types of food in the past reminded me of those in the world who are hungry. It’s not like people suffer for lack of access to Facebook. I wish I chose a fast that would have more easily reminded me of my hurting neighbors. I also wish I worked harder at praying for the poor and suffering while I fasted. So while fasting from Facebook may become an annual discipline, I think I will incorporate other fasts and practices as well during Lent so that I may better care for my neighbors.